Canyon de Chelly ancient cliffs stand proudly in the middle of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona. As one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes in North America, it is a site of historical relevance and majestic beauty.
Driving from the Arizona capital of the Navajo Nation, Window Rock, to the town of Chinle, you’ll find the gateway to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Rust-red cliffs descending into a valley where Navajo families live along ruins built by the Ancestral Puebloans between 350 and 1300 A.D.
Managed between the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation in Arizona, the Canyon’s walls cradle hundreds of ancient ruins. Sites and images tell us the story of the people living here for the past 5,000 years, after millions of years of land uplifts and stream cutting created the colorful sheer cliffs we see today.
A Place to Experience the Full History of Navajo County, Arizona
Paleo-Indians, ancient Puebloans, Hopi, and Navajo all lived here, probably due to its micro-climate, and fertile soil. As one hikes through the area, stone villages built by Puebloans and walls filled with petroglyphs created by the Hopi can be witnessed.
From small pit houses on top of cliffs, the Ancestral Puebloan people began inhabiting compounds of apartment-like buildings made of adobe and stone blocks. Archaeologists studying the area believe approximately 800 people lived here around 1150 CE. Accessible by wooden ladders, these cliff dwellings have multiple floors and terraces, the ruins of which we can admire today. Navajo people, however, first occupied the canyon some 600 years ago.
As one marvels at the natural beauty the Canyon has to offer, the realization that this isn’t an archaeological site composed of ruins left by long-dead people comes. Instead, Canyon de Chelly’s history continues to this very moment. Cows, sheep, and horses range free, while farmers grow traditional corn, beans, melons, and grapes.
What to Do
As a visitor, you are welcome to drive the rim roads and admire the Canyon from several scenic viewpoints. These are all free to enter, providing great views of the Canyon below. The North Rim Drive takes you through three overlooks perfect for morning photos.
The South Rim Drive instead offers six overlooks, ending at Spider Rock, the park’s signature geological formation. Standing alone in its grandiosity, legend says Spider Woman lives atop the column forming it, where she takes misbehaving children to eat, leaving only white bones to color its top layer.
White House Ruins’ Trail
The only ruin at ground level is also the only one you’re allowed to visit on foot without a permit or guide. In a mile and a half, the trail to the White House descends 500 feet from the mesa top along the South Rim overlook. Built into a sheer 500-foot (150-meter) sandstone cliff, its name comes from the distinctive white plaster decorating the ruins’ back wall.
Take a Ranger-led Program
Ranger-led programs include free hikes and talks throughout other areas of the Canyon. Visit the park’s Welcome Center, from 8:30am to 4:30pm, to check the activities’ schedule and sign up.
Navajo Guided Canyon Tours
Many places in Navajo County in Arizona are not meant for outsiders, and must be accessed with the utmost respect in mind. Having the right guide provides the opportunity to connect further with the Canyon de Chelly.
Hire a Navajo guide and ask for your backcountry permit to tour further into the canyon whether hiking, driving, or on horseback. They’ll be able to tell you the true stories of the territory, guiding you through places such as Junction Ruin, where del Muerto and de Chelly canyons meet, Antelope House—named after the antelope pictograms painted nearby—or the Rounded Corner Ruin, notable for its unusual architecture.
Where to Stay
For a rustic stay, the Cottonwood Campground inside the park provides individual and group tent sites amongst cottonwood trees. These accommodate tents, trailers, and RVs. The campground includes drinking water, flush toilets, and a dump station, though services are limitedly available during the winter months. A restaurant and picnic tables are at hand, but no ground fires are allowed.
This historic Lodge is the only hotel in Canyon de Chelly. Accommodations are simple, motel-style, but what’s truly special about it is its location right inside the park, and Navajo staff and owners. Get a true canyon experience by enjoying regional specialties served by Navajo chefs at the Lodge’s restaurant, located in what used to be the area’s original Trading Post.
Things to Look Out For When Visiting This Landmark of Navajo Nation in Arizona
The Navajo Nation of Arizona and their territories deserve all the respect and consideration a responsible traveler can offer. While you may be tempted to explore off-trail, remember the place’s environmental and sacred importance. As the Canyon de Chelly National Monument and the rest of the Navajo Nation slowly open back up for visitors, considerations should be noticed.
First of all, keep in mind all areas on the Navajo Nation of Arizona are closed to non-Navajos unless they come with a valid permit, which can be issued by the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department, or any other delegated tribal authority.
Many Navajo families live on Tribal Lands, so be respectful of both homesites and animals. Value the existence of sacred places; maintain everything in its place, and respect tribal beliefs, as well as the privacy and customs of the Navajo people. Leave pets at home, and avoid taking pictures of those you encounter without explicit permission.
Here, the terrain is rough, water is scarce and weather can be extreme so plan accordingly. Be prepared for unpredictable weather, since rain could cause waterfalls, rock falls, or flash flooding. Most trails along the park require good physical condition, as they can be quite strenuous.
As you enjoy the spectacular landscapes encountered and the rich history of the Navajo Nation, make sure to take proper care of it all, following these simple rules, taking your personal safety into account, and leaving no trace.